WHAT HAVE WE learned in recent days about the Middle East? Not much that's new. We know Hamas will continue its terrorist attacks on innocent Israeli women and children. And we know that if Palestinian prime minister Mahmoud Abbas can't or won't confront Hamas and stop the terrorism, Ariel Sharon will order the Israeli military to do so.
Despite President Bush's intervention, there's little ground for optimism at the moment about a peace settlement between Israel and the Palestinians emerging from new discussions based on the "road map" for peace. And if we look at key events over the past two-and-a-half years, we'll see why.
Start with the January 2001 meeting in the Oval Office between President Clinton, soon to leave office, and Palestinian president Yasser Arafat. Clinton offered Arafat a spectacularly generous settlement: half of Jerusalem, virtually all of the West Bank and Gaza with a land bridge between the two, dramatically reduced Israeli settlements, and money.
Arafat declined, insisting on a "right of return" for Palestinians, not to a Palestinian state but to Israel, where most had never lived. This was a non-starter, as Arafat knew it would be. From this meeting, we knew the Oslo peace process begun in 1993 was dead, and, finally and irrefutably, that there was no possible peace with Arafat. Sad to say, Arafat reflected the view of most Palestinians, who favor a settlement that Israel will never accept.
Jump to June 2002. Bush boldly declared the United States would no longer deal with Arafat and urged other world leaders to do the same. The Palestinians would need to name a prime minister, which they did under pressure and against Arafat's wishes. This episode showed Bush, who had become friends with Sharon, was coming to understand the political landscape of the Middle East.
This spring, only weeks ago, Bush persuaded Sharon to back the road map. Sharon was careful, however, only endorsing the "steps" set out in the plan. From this, we learned that Sharon would proceed with the road map so long as Bush protected Israel's legitimate interests in the process, as Bush promised to do.
Last week in Egypt, Bush met with the leaders of Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia, all of whom claim to want a peace settlement between Israel and the Palestinians. Fine, Bush said, let's start by marginalizing Arafat and elevating the new prime minister, Abbas. The three Arab leaders refused. And once again, we learned that they would be no help in moving toward peace. European leaders, even Bush's pal Tony Blair, are no better. The French, German, and Greek foreign ministers recently met with Arafat.
The next day, Bush hosted a summit with Sharon and Abbas. Sharon agreed to recognize a Palestinian state that would be "contiguous," thus including almost all of the West Bank and Gaza, and that Israeli settlements would be negotiable. These were real concessions.
Abbas made promises. He would recognize Israel, though he didn't mention it as a "Jewish state." And he would stop the terrorism and halt the incitement of anti-Jewish, anti-Semitic, and anti-Israel sentiment by Palestinian newspapers, television, and schools. These were important promises.
The problem, of course, is that all these promises were made before by Arafat in 1993 when the Oslo Accord was reached. None were kept. And when Abbas announced he would not use force to stop Hamas and other Palestinian terrorist groups, the chances the promises would be kept this time around looked slim.
Some would argue that Abbas doesn't yet have the authority to take on Hamas. Arafat still controls most of the Palestinian security forces and he won't crack down. (This week Arafat telephoned a Hamas leader wounded by Israeli forces to check on his well-being.) But Abbas does have the power to begin halting the incitement of Palestinians against Israel. And he hasn't done that. And he has enough allies to stop the Palestinian shelling of Israel from across the border in Gaza.
Where does this leave us? The ball is in two courts and neither of them is Sharon's. Abbas must do what Arafat didn't and won't. He must, as his first order of business, stop the terrorist attacks. A good faith effort won't do. Actual termination of the assaults is the necessary first step in any progress toward peace. Without it, the road map is stillborn. Abbas must also fulfill the other promises, especially on incitement.
Bush's task is difficult. He must insist on real performance by the Palestinians, not hollow promises. This is a lonely job. The three others who drafted the road map--the United Nations, European Union, and Russia--won't hold the Palestinians accountable. They never have. They wouldn't hold Saddam Hussein accountable.
The Arab states won't require compliance by the Palestinians either. They never have. They'll demand that Israeli concessions continue even as Palestinian promises are paid lip service. Bush's own State Department will no doubt agree with the Arabs.
Israel, the new peace process, and the Middle East have a lot riding on the president. The hardest thing for him will be publicly declaring that the Palestinians haven't lived up to their promises and that no further concessions should be made by Israel until they do. Bush will be condemned around the world if he does this. But if he doesn't hold the Palestinians accountable, no one will. And the peace process will once again be a sham.
Fred Barnes is executive editor of The Weekly Standard.